What put Romney ahead of Obama in the first presidential debate? The same thing that could put you ahead at your next job interview.

What’s so interesting on the floor?

I wondered this while watching President Obama keep his eyes down for the entire 90 minutes of the first presidential debate.

Okay, to be fair, not all 90 minutes. At times he also looked at the moderator, Jim Lehrer. The problem is that neither the floor nor Jim Lehrer were challenging his leadership as President. That was the other guy, the one who smiled the entire time because he knew he was winning the debate in front of 50 million Americans.

If you watched it—and even if you didn’t—you know what Obama did wrong. He did not challenge Romney’s positions, did not look his opponent straight in the eyes, hesitated, did not reply concisely. In other words, a weak performance in terms of confidence and content.

Since Obama is generally regarded as having good communication skills, I wondered if poor preparation could have been the key factor that led to his failure. According to the Dailymail, Obama prepared for the debate with a three-day rehearsal. By contrast, Dailymail wrote, “Mr Romney has been preparing for the debates for months, spending hours at his Boston headquarters, his home in New Hampshire and on the campaign trail with Ohio senator Rob Portman, who has been playing the role of the President in mock debates.” In addition, Romney took part in 19 debates between June 2011 and February 2012, while Obama only delivered formal speeches that lacked the head-to-head element.

Here’s the message that Romney’s performance delivered: better preparation wins.

Taking a few cues from Romney

The purpose of doing a presidential debate is to convince people that you’re the best guy for the job and get their votes. Similarly, convincing people you’re the best for the job is also the purpose of a job interview. So, why not prepare for it like you would for a presidential debate? Why not prepare like Mitt Romney?

Here’s how to do it:

1. Rehearse—with someone competent

This is serious stuff. Romney rehearsed with Ohio Senator Rob Portman, not with his own wife. No laughs, no wasting time. Do not ask your boyfriend or girlfriend.

Get someone competent—someone who could even qualify for the job you’re aiming for—to grill you for hours. Have this person research the position well and possibly research the people who will interview you (on LinkedIn or Google). The more your partner is prepared, the better you will become.

And one thing: be open to feedback. If your partner says you’re not doing well, you’re probably not doing well.

2. Video-record yourself

This is advanced stuff. Romney smiled for the entire debate (it must have been painful!) and always looked straight at Obama when replying. Those cameras fixed on his face never caught a sign of weakness. His message was, “I’m going after you, Mr. President.”

In contrast, Obama rarely looked at Romney directly. During job interviews, people tend to do like Obama—looking everywhere but in the interviewer’s eyes. For whatever reason they do it—whether they’re thinking or are just nervous—it’s always a mistake.

You can’t convey confidence without looking the other person straight in the eyes. Use a camera when you rehearse. Get friends to watch the recording and give you feedback.

3. Challenge

This is called “growing balls.” When talking about taxes, President Obama said, “Senator Romney and I both believe taxes should be lower.” He was trying to find common ground.

Romney went the other way. He said, “Sure, I believe taxes should be lower, but in a totally different way from what you suggest, Mr. President.” Romney was not afraid to reduce the common ground and highlight differences instead. No tip-toeing, but rather smiling with confidence while exposing his ideas.

Why not do the same in an interview? Don’t be afraid to challenge your interviewer, show your expertise and back it up with data. Say things like, “With all due respect, I don’t agree with you. I could name at least 10 companies that became successful with my model, and here’s how I could apply it to your company…”

Getting the interviewer to think hard about what you say is the key to success, and it usually requires a bit of a challenging attitude. You want the interviewer to leave the room thinking, “What if he was right? What am I missing?”

Of course, this is serious interview preparation. It’s different than what the majority of people do, which is searching career websites for potential interview questions and the company’s “about” page. This is advanced (and ballsy). But hey, it’s how you succeed at important interviews. Or presidential debates.

Alex Dogliotti is the European Director of Learning and Development of ReachLocal, Inc. He blogs about being unique at work at Stuckaholic. Feel free to connect with him on Facebook or Twitter.


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  2. Spark Hire

    This is a great post! There really are plenty of things job seekers can learn from Mitt Romney’s initial presidential debate performance. Romney was confident, relaxed, and ready to show how he would bring value. The tip about using video to record yourself is a great idea. In fact, more interviews themselves are being performed through online video now. So taking a video test run will help you prepare, whether your interview is in person or through online video.

  3. Michał Wieczorek

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